THE WHO, 30 Years Maximum R&B box set
Melody Maker, 1994
For a while there, it seemed that The Who had dipped out
of rock memory, become a band that virtually no one even
thought about. They seemed to have the same relation vis-a-
vis the eternally cool and current Beatles & Stones that,
say, Deep Purple have to Sabbath & Zep: massive then,
monstrously uninfluential thereafter. In recent years,
though, The Who have slowly seeped back as a reference point,
what with Urge Overkill's Live At Leeds sharp-dressed
rifferama and the mod iconography of groups at diverse as
Flowered Up, These Animal Men, Blur, D-Generation, and Primal
Scream (that ad for 'Rocks' featuring Keith Moon).
Personally, I find there's something resolutely
unloveable about The Who, although why I'm not sure. Pete
Townshend's mid-life crisis and endless maudlin' musings on
lost youth? Roger Daltrey's voice, face, and fish-farm?
Just the FACT (I haven't heard 'em) that John Entwhistle
released FIVE solo LP's? Perhaps the real reason is the boy-
ness of The Who cult (and of their legacy, The Jam, Secret
Affair etc). Somehow it's obvious that way fewer women cared
about The Who than The Stones, Beatles or even Led Zep.
Still, I love the mod-psych bands who never made it--The
Eyes, John's Children, The Creation--so I can't logically
refute the thrill of "I Can't Explain", "Anyway Anyhow
Anywhere", "Substitute". At their 1965/66 height, The Who's
white R&B is so amped-up and amphetamine-uptight it's coming
apart at the seams. "My Generation" remains as naffly
irresistible as Steppenwolf's equally naive "Born To Be
Wild"; Moon's ramshackle surf-drums, exploding everywhichway
like Mitch Mitchell of the Experience, Townshend's slash-and-
scald rhythm guitar, Entwhistle's bass-lunges and Daltrey's
speed-freak stutter, all add up to an immaculately chaotic
enactment of mod's "smashed, blocked" aggression, its rage-
to-live and hunger for action.
With the arrival of psychedelia, The Who toyed with the
era's fashionable tropes of androgyny ("I'm A Boy"'s Frank
Spencer scenario, where mummy won't admit he's not a girl),
and regression (the fey "creepy-crawly" terrors of "Boris The
Spider"). There were gems here (the effete all-wanked-out
vocals of the masturbation ode "Pictures Of Lily"), but
mostly The Who's acid-phase is unusually unappetising. "I
Can See For Miles" turns mod misogny into visionary paranoia,
and the swooping phased guitars of "Armenia" thrill, but the
pallid, fey vocals of this period are pretty pukey.
Then the bombast begins in earnest. Daltrey quickly
swells into the least likeable white R&B singer this side of
Joe Cocker, while Townshend's songs bloat up like houses with
too many extensions. The Who's progressive aspirations are
all on the level of structure rather than playing or texture
(which remained coarse R&B); the result is a horrid fusion of
prog-rock and pub rock. So, apart from "Tommy"'s one
genuinely hymnal aria ("See Me Feel Me") and the just-about-
takeable epic-ness of their post-counterculture allegory
"Won't Get Fooled Again", a long blank void ensues--one whose
continuance seemed increasingly mercenary as the Seventies
proceed. Even at their most haggard, The Stones could re-
ignite with the lubricious raunch of a "Start Me Up". The
Who's equivalent twilight hit is "You Better You Bet", a song
with only one fan in the entire world, Taylor Parkes, and
only then for the most perverse, "it's so bad, it's....
really MINDBOGGLINGLY bad" of reasons.
30 Years Maximum R & B? Break that down, and it works
out at roughly 4 and a half years of adolescent intensity and
two and a half decades of graceless middle-age.